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I believe in the Holy Spirit, one holy catholic church, the communion of saints…

October 24, 2010

Sunnyside Mennonite Church
Scripture readings: Psalm 65; Luke 18:9-14

The vision of 16th century Anabaptists held out Christian perfection as the ideal. Visible fruit of faith was important. All believers were held accountable for their spiritual lives.

Diana Butler Bass tells us that in the city of Augsberg, Anabaptists regularly complained that Lutheran preachers had never “enlightened or improved anyone.” They lamented that the state of the city was no better than it had been under the rule of Roman Catholics.

Led by Jacob Dachser (1486-1567), the Augsberg Anabaptists called for a “Christianity of obedience” and separated themselves from other reformed churches to lead a more disciplined life. The community shared its goods and earned a reputation as particularly generous to the poor. They instituted shunning (refusing to associate with sinful church members) and the ban (exiling unrepentant sinners from the community) as forms of discipline, intended to reconcile believers. In a short time over 1,100 people joined Dachser’s congregation. A sort of sixteen-century radical megachurch.

The group proved controversial and was accused of peddling a “new monasticism,” a derisive term to accuse someone of being Catholic.

In our gospel reading Jesus is telling a parable. It is a story about two men. One—a Pharisee–has conformed to the behaviors and beliefs of the religious community. The other—a tax collector—has not. Both go to the temple to pray.

Putting myself in the shoes of the Pharisee, I can imagine that going to the temple is habit. It is what you have done for as long as you can remember. When you are born into the cradle of a faith community, you learn the behaviors and beliefs along with writing Hebrew and reading Torah. You almost cannot distinguish where the faith of the community ends and yours begins. They are intertwined.

The Pharisee’s prayer is self-conscious.  He focuses on his life in light of the law…in comparison to others.

While society loses its moral center he continues to uphold the values that have been a part of Israel’s heritage. While thieves and rogues corruptly handle money, he honors God by giving ten percent of his income back to God at temple. While society lives out a promiscuous sexualilty, he has fasted and disciplined the body.

The Pharisee sees the tax collector across the sanctuary. Nothing is spoken, but it is difficult to believe that they are a part of the same faith community. Their politics are so different. They live such different lives.

The prayer of the Pharisee is…God I thank you that I am not like other people.

The tax collector stands far off. By vocation, he would have been perceived by righteous Jews as a sell-out. A sell out to the Roman domination system. He is another Zaccheus. But Jesus is crafting this story. Jesus apparently has a different way of assessing righteousness.

The prayer of the tax collector is very different from the prayer of the Pharisee. His focus is not on himself. He knows that his behavior falls short of God’s standard of righteousness and justice. He knows that he is a sinner.  He prays: God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Putting myself in the shoes of the tax collector, I think it might have been easier to pray to God away from temple. In my own space…on my own terms. To gather with others in the communal place of prayer is to risk being judged. Even so, he comes to temple. There is something that draws him.

Jesus’ story echoes the movement we hear in Psalm 65. Happy are those you choose and draw to your courts to dwell there! They will be satisfied by the beauty of your house, by the holiness of your temple.

We live in a day when church participation is increasingly seen as optional to a spiritual life.  We hear people say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Why this trend?  Perhaps we value our freedom more than accountability. Perhaps we are tired of being judged.  Perhaps there are other priorities.

But Jesus is not making a point about church attendance, so why does Jesus tell this story?   We are told that Jesus tells this story to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.

What vision for the church brings us to a place of trusting in ourselves and having a critical spirit toward others?

Somewhere around 25 or 30 years ago, anthropologist Paul Hiebert proposed a new way of social groupings. He divided them into centered sets, bounded sets, and fuzzy sets. More recently two books have renewed the discussion on this way of understanding social groups in terms of the way we understand faith communities. Frost and Hirsch use the centered set/bounded set model (The Shaping of Things to Come), and Guder et al use the model in their book Missional Church.

I think this is an important concept as we seek to live into the vision of being a missional community in the way of Jesus.  We are surrounded by anxious language on any number of issues in the Church.  Schisms and controversy did not fade away in the 16th century.  In many ways, we are heirs to this notion of a pure church over and against a compromised expression.

Jesus’ parable presents two divergent ways to gather for prayer with others who name the name of Jesus. There is a choice. We will embody a generative Christianity which speaks with humble language and practices hospitality and love.  Or we will, out of fear, perpetuate a militant Christianity which tolerates schism, crusade and warfare as necessary means for the righteous to establish God’s will on earth.

The Pharisee’s vision of righteousness involves clear boundaries. He knows what behaviors are right and what behaviors are wrong. It’s black and white. You’re in or you’re out. His examen of life reassures him that he is in. He is grateful. There is no room in his vision for associating with those whose behavior falls short. He keeps his distance, avoiding guilt by association, preserving his own pure identity.

In some bounded set communities righteousness is maintained through schism from groups that are deemed unfaithful to the truth. This has been a consistent pattern among Anabaptist groups.  Jesus’ parable seems to be challenging a bounded set vision of church. Our example in a humble spirit of prayer is a cheating tax collector who would not make it into a church without spot or wrinkle.

This is a sermon that will not have a nice neat ending. My sense is that this story (as does the rest of Luke’s gospel) challenges us to pay attention to who Jesus is welcoming into the kingdom.

How might a centered set vision for church call us to live in light of this parable? Let me offer two possibilities. A centered-set vision of the church is God-centered. Worship is not about our experience—what we got out of it—it is about God.  Our worship is not about who should be here and who shouldn’t…who is worthy and who isn’t.  Whatever the boundary issue of the day may be, we are invited to a posture of humility as we gather in the temple to worship Jesus as Lord.  We are free to use humble language as we worship with others who are being drawn to the temple. We are free to see the log in our own eye before we try to remove the splinter in our neighbor’s vision.

Secondly, a centered set vision of church is made possible by a dependency on the Holy Spirit. In the Apostle’s Creed we say: I believe in the Holy Spirit, in one holy catholic church, in the communion of saints.

To believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe in the Church. To open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit is to give ourselves fully and unreservedly to the community created by the Spirit. Pentecost is about a diverse community being built together across language and cultural differences…across economic and political differences. Around a common confession of faith—Jesus is Lord.

We are called to live into this vision by these words from our SMC Covenant:

Because Christ loves the whole church, we will walk in grace and patient love with one another.  We seek a mutual expression of God’s grace and love in our words, attitudes, and actions, even as we live with diversity in our congregation and throughout the Body of Christ.

May we have the courage to live into this vision.  May we trust the surprising welcome of Jesus the story teller who turns our bounded set way of thinking on end.  May we be satisfied by the beauty in God’s house where Jesus welcomes the prayers of cheating tax collectors (and folks like us) who pray with humble language.  AMEN.

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